SPECIAL EDITION. The Traveller's Notebook

Travel essays by Oleg Kolpashchikov,
President of White Cane NGO,
visually disabled person

A Trip to America. 20 Years Later. Washington – Chicago

It’s not that easy to start writing in the morning in Chicago, Hilton hotel, sitting on the 15th floor in a two-room apartment with kitchen, swimming pool (on the 19th floor) and other fruits of civilization. Two weeks have passed since the start of our trip to America upon exchange program, and here’s the very beginning of the exchange. Before there had been one-side play. There’s nothing to do: most of us is living in the consummation society and we’re horribly used to seeing only ourselves. I write “we” intending “I”.

A couple of words on the exchange program… American Consulate in Yekaterinburg has offered to participate in the «Access for All: Enhancing the Lives of People with Disabilities». I was primarily informed of the following: they are summoning heads of noncommercial organizations from the different countries of the world and we’re travelling to the USA and will be meeting the local noncommercial leaders. This program is a part of another initiative – «International Visitor Leadership Program». When I have heard of it, it came to my mind that I must if possibly use the travel for more than 100 per cent. That’s why I’ve decided to meet necessary people and organizations in America as well as try if possible to make as many presentations as possible of our ideas, projects, expectations, tries and innovations. I have at once wished to take Artyom Mamylin with me. He will be the first to read and edit this text so I’ll try to describe him more simply. Almost from the beginning of activity of the organization “Belaya trost’”, Artyom has been in the thick of things. He’s one of the young without handicap, there is such category in the inclusive “Belaya trost’”. Artyom is a physicist, a sailor and a man with “self-refilling” optimism. Let’s stop here and pass to the trip.

We have a habit to use any chance possible to organize interesting activities and time-spending. When we were receiving visa in the Yekaterinburg Consulate there has passed a rumor about a bomb being planted. I and Artyom have gone downstairs into the garage of the Consulate, having made acquaintance on our way with a family of the Americans the Christensens, heads of Mormon mission in the Ural. We have made a brief presentation of our ideas and have agreed to counteract. The father of the family, the elder Paul Christensen, was extremely interested in what and how we do, he heard out a detailed lecture on the special abilities of the handicapped, “complained” of this lecture discriminating him as a non-invalid and gave us his contact information for the meeting.

During the whole talk we have heard not a single word from the elder about the activities of his church; only the stories about their affairs and our questions. The Americans are extremely businesslike people, just snatching at everything new, it’s worth learning this from them.

The first point of our trip was Washington – the center of world development in recent years. The city located at latitude south of Sochi. The flight was an extremely easy one for me, Artyom was flying across the ocean for the first time so it was more difficult for him. Even when filling in the documents for a visa I have realized that I went to America for the first time exactly 20 years ago. And an interesting thing: almost at the same time (it was in May then) and almost the same route. Now it is Washington, Burlington, Chicago and San Francisco.

20 years ago it was Washington, Chicago and Madison. Then every night when I went to bed in the States I was happy as a child. Then it was all surprisingly interesting. Then I seemed to peep into the future. What has changed in myself and in this country during the 20 years? How has the world changed?

The first answer to these questions was waiting on the way from the airport. 20 years ago, having arrived in Washington, I got in a completely different world, with different rules, with other infrastructure. This time a volunteer met me and Artyom together with a colleague on the program, Ali, a lawyer from Tanzania. We got in a taxi. There was an ethnic Ethiopian at the wheel, talkative, asking about where we are from, telling stories about the elections. He even admitted his deference to Putin. And then Ali began to ask questions about his old cracked iPhone: where and how to discard it, how much can be paid for it, how much a new one will cost. The talk between Ali and the taxi driver reminded of guys from the neighboring courtyards exchanging the city information. They do not look narrowly at each other, do not look for common themes, they already have it all. They are just beginning to discuss a common essential, as though living in the same area. Globalization is an amazing thing: 20 years ago, it took the first week to understand how people live in the other hemisphere, what values they have, what they buy, what they eat. Today, just on the way from the airport people continue the global dialogue initiated through the media and social networks.

The second episode occurred yesterday in Chicago. Our plane was late, I, Artyom and Aysha from Oman missed hockey but still decided to hit the bar in the evening and have dinner. Artyom says this bar is not in any way different from those of our city. It takes him some time to remember the name of one in Yekaterinburg similar to this bar. So I’m not the only one to feel that it’s all the same everywhere. I wouldn’t say it’s bad but it’s so without a doubt. These are the changes in the world and in America.

This time I was willing to go to America not only because I wanted to meet new people but also because of the opportunity to meet my old friends, or rather, the old friend. Rather, in a traditional way, I couldn’t call Father George exactly my friend. I say so because I feel some amazing connection between us, I feel my desire to communicate with this person.

20 years ago, Father George, a priest of the Church of St. Nicholas in Washington met us, helped to arrange a visit program, traveled with us to Chicago and Madison. Personally, I was lucky enough to spend the wonderful days and evenings with him. He is an amazing person who came to America from the Crimea where he managed to serve in the church. 20 years ago, Father George was actively involved not only in the life of the Church, but also in charitable programs, we then became a part of one of those. At that time, 20 years ago, 90 per cent of the information about America which I know was got in the evening conversations with my companion and mentor. We talked a lot about many things: from business to social life, culture, rules of behavior and life stories of our compatriots. And all this in an interesting manner, in details and with taste. A surprisingly secular and well-read priest. Then, in 1996, I remember his consulting his friends and partners on business and Internet connection simultaneously. At that same time, I suppose, I took over from Father George a habit to add: “Good!” slowly and steadily.

At the same time, 20 years ago in Madison a surgeon – ophthalmologist told me that I could do nothing more with my former eyes. He said it simply and directly and then sent to the doctor for rehabilitation. When I appeared before the rehabilitation doctor I began in panic to convince him that I would wait for eye transplantation. Dr. Marshall, I well remember his name, simply and kindly explained that he had been working in that place for 20 years. He had heard and read much about the transplants but had never seen live examples. He wished me very gently not to beat about the bush for time and start rehabilitation. I started to do it but later, after having played for time.

Interestingly, science and eye surgery have greatly advanced during this period. But, actually being in the stream, I cannot boast knowing a case where the sight would be miraculously restored and a person would start studying or working. In the meanwhile there were only examples of, to put it mildly, a sort of an “electronic retina.” But it’s more like self-indulgence.

All this hope for the wonders of technology and civilization! Of course, there is a breakthrough with talking phones and computers, but, however sadly it would sound, in most cases these devices and technologies assist us very poorly, they are more like toys. With one of these toys I came from America 20 years ago. We bought then, for the fabulous amount of $ 1,000, ultrasound spectacles which I eventually used about five times, not more. This money would have made it possible to start a couple of new lives at the time.

It was delivery of goods at home that surprised me then. George had ordered glasses on the internet and on the third day they were lying on the threshold of the house we were staying in. Then these were real wonders that made my dream in that house fabulous every night.

And this time I dreamed to meet with Father George. We had appointed the first meeting on Sunday morning in the church of St.Nicholas. We had the first surprise when we entered the temple. Orthodox service was being conducted in English. It was so interesting and unusual at the same time: hymn, the service, the same preaching, the same voices, sounds and melodies. Just another language.

Father George met us at the entrance to the temple, we went down to the dining room and began talking. At first it was going a little awkwardly and with difficulty. I wanted to speak out all at once and show all the cherished feelings but it always takes time. Father George began to acquaint us with the parishioners and members of the church, introducing me in the American style. “The leader of social movement which helps people with disabilities to live sometimes even in a more interesting way than we do”, says the Father as if joking. The meeting is short, we agree that we will make a presentation of “Belaya trost’” before the congregation the next evening after the service.

I continue to write the next morning, again in Chicago, only on Monday. Before returning to Washington in thoughts, I’ll write a few words about the Sunday.

It all turned out quite in a family way in our group. First, we were all together terribly chilled during a boat tour through this city remarkable with skyscrapers, winds and location. It was particularly difficult for those of us who were on the wheelchairs. Bergur, Eslam and Miriam could not get down to the lower deck. Let me remind you that all the guys except Bergura are from Africa. A friend of Eslam, an Egyptian, turned blue with cold after an hour a half in the boat.

But after the tour we started in my Hilton room on the 15th floor, together with Rano from Tajikistan, to cook Tajik pilaf that is called “pilaf” only in Russian, in Tajik language it’s “osh”. Pilaf was quite good, and in the morning in my kitchen there was only one plate of it left for Ali from Tanzania, the rest had all been devoured.

During the dinner, we continued recording tongue-twisters from different countries, the funniest ones from China, the fastest from Nepal and the slowest from Iceland. Bill, one of the managers of our project, an American who had served in the Navy next to China, mimicked the talks on the radio between Chinese and Japanese pilots, googled Russian YouTube for a Russian military naval dance “yablochko” and went with Pavan from Nepal to see the dreams. In the morning before airing there was slight fragrance of the Tajik dish. I’m curious whether Ali will come for his portion, or …

Now let’s return to Washington to the Father Georgy, or, to be more precise, to the presentation which he organized in the church of St. Nicholas. It was the second or third day of our stay in America and I invited the participants to the Russian church to make acquaintance and to try together to share our, so to speak, wealth. With us in the temple there were Bergur from Iceland, Rano from Tajikistan, Emma from Moldova and Kim from the South Korea, and of course Artyom from the “Zazerkalye” (“Looking Glass”). When we got into the taxi I remembered that the presentation was scheduled in the refectory and there are a couple of flights of stairs down with no lifts nor elevators but we came to America on a program of accessibility for all. Somewhat embarrassing: Bergur in a wheelchair, Emma can go down the stairs with great difficulty. I had not thought about it and hadn’t planned it thoroughly. On the one hand, of course, it was my fault but we’re fighting for the whole world to be accessible at the most, regardless of personal limitations and architectural means of accessibility. It is true also that I always worry more and tend to think about the world and people a little worse than it actually is. Excuse me, the world and the people! I and Emma holding each other strongly, went down the stairs, Bergur was lowered and then raised by Artyom and the parishioners. No problems with accessibility nor inaccessibility!

After the service, the parishioners organized a common lunch from “every little bit”. We had lunch, then I talked briefly about “Belaya trost’”, “Sails of Spirit”, my colleagues and plans for the future. There were questions and explicit offers of help and support. The first one to offer was Sharon, our, so to say, good acquaintance. After the presentation Artyom heard a phrase in Russian, people were surprised that for the first time no money had been asked during such presentation.

We really do not always need money. We always need such people as Sharon, Father George, Bergur, Bill and all the others about whom I’ll continue writing but already in San-Francisco.

I would like to thank for their help in organizing the trip:

Sarah Saperstein, US vice consul in Yekaterinburg in culture, education and media

Julia Grigoryeva, Assistant of US Consul General in Yekaterinburg in Education and Culture

Sergey Loktionov, Officer of Professional Development Office Public Affairs Section, US Embassy in the Russian Federation

Special thanks to Mr. Tālis Bērziņš for taking great pictures during the program and to Tamara Agafonycheva for translating the text into English.

You can find out more about participants of the program by watching this video about tongue twisters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCR22QTFJdg

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